For Republicans, trying to take down Obama could get ugly
In Florida, the issue that mattered most to voters was the ability to defeat President Obama: 45 percent of Florida Republicans said so, according to exit polls.
Newt Gingrich ran his resurgent campaign on the contention that he, unlike his rivals for the nomination, is a true conservative. But only 14 percent of Florida voters prioritized that issue.
The results in Florida mirror those of the previous contests: in the Sunshine State, as in South Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa, the most important thing voters were looking for was finding a candidate to beat Mr. Obama.
While voters' calculations about who can best beat Mr. Obama can be complex, it seems, from the tenor of the campaign, that so far it hasn't been about who has the best tax plan or is most committed to deficit reduction; instead, the question has been about who has the least amount of personal baggage, crazy ideas or ill-advised comments that can be vilified in a general election by the president and his allies.
In South Carolina, Gingrich was able to turn Romney's business experience against him, making him seem unable to relate to struggling Americans. In Florida, Romney turned the tables, saying Gingrich was "unhinged." Romney lambasted his rival's idea to establish a colony on the moon and attacked his tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives, particularly targeting his resignation and ethics charges. This was a race to the bottom -- to find out which candidate could be made out to be the least likable.
The two main contenders slugged it out in the venue of choice:on the airwaves. In Florida alone, Romney, Gingrich and their respective allies (read: super PACs) spent roughly $20 million on television advertising - most of it negative.
But what's also true in fueling the "beat Obama" fire is that debates matter. Being on the big stage, especially with only four candidates left, gave voters an opportunity to imagine each candidate up there facing off with the president.
In South Carolina, Gingrich used debates to his advantage, sparring with the moderators and opponents alike to win that state's primary by convincing voters he could best beat Mr. Obama in a debate. In Florida, it was Romney's turn -- using Gingrich's very tactics to go on the offensive and win that mantle back. But part of being a strong debater is having the ability to be nasty in person. Republicans want a candidate who will stick it to the president. Gingrich did that in South Carolina, but when he was given the chance to repeat his attack on Romney in a Florida debate, he passed, hoping to appear above the fray. Losing that killer instinct hurt the former speaker because that's what voters were looking for: an attack dog to take on the President.
And while a lot has been made about the question of Romney's ability to garner Tea Party support, the fact of the matter is that Tea Party supporters who are Republicans at heart share the same goal as non-Tea Party Republicans: they all want to beat Mr. Obama.
While some would prefer to vote with their hearts for the true conservative, most seem to be voting with their heads: Which candidate has the least baggage, the best operation, and -- yes, money goes into this calculation -- the power to topple a sitting president.
When the biggest consideration surrounding a campaign is about personality rather than policy, the race gets nasty. It's not necessarily who can best fix the country, though that's part of it; it's about which man, warts and all, is best able to beat the president. And with millions of dollars raised by the campaigns and unaffiliated groups who want the same goals in the general election, the nastiness could be record breaking.
In other words, this campaign has become, and will continue to be, nasty and brutish. And unlike the saying goes, it's not necessarily going to be short.
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